The sun was already well up, casting the rain replenished landscape in a soft green-gold glow, when Koko and I went walking this morning. I’d actually risen hours before, at 4 a.m., to be exact, to put my sleep-refreshed mind to work polishing a story on Newell’s shearwaters that I knew the Honolulu Weekly editors wanted to see first thing.
I’d been working on the story all weekend, and part of the week and weekend before that, because it’s complicated and I wanted to make sure it was accurate and conveyed the bigger picture. Mostly, I wanted to make sure it was understandable to people who aren’t so familiar with the bird, the Endangered Species Act and wildlife management — stuff I’ve been writing about for well over 20 years.
So the `A`o, to use its Hawaiian name, has been much on my mind, especially since it is fledging season, the time when humans are most apt to encounter young birds as they make their maiden flight from their mountainside nesting burrows to the sea.
I thought about them when Koko and I reached the end of the road and I saw the tall poles, strung with numerous wires, that span Moalepe Valley. Just the day before I’d read a report by seabird experts urging Kauai Electric, as the utility company used to be known, to underground or re-route its wires — or at the very least, shorten its poles and plant some rows of trees to hide the lines — there and at four other key nesting valleys: Wailua, Hanalei, Lawai and Waimea.
That was 15 years ago, and none of that was done. Instead, some orange balls were strung on the wires, an act that seabird biologists said is totally ineffective in preventing collisions.
I also thought about them at 5:53 a.m., when I received an email from Caren Diamond telling me her kids had found another Newell’s fledgling, this time on the highway, near the street light at Wainiha, where it was almost run over by a car — a not uncommon demise for today’s seabirds. They had contacted Kathy Valier, who was prompted to volunteer for the Save Our Shearwaters program after becoming aware of the animosity directed toward the birds by football fans angry over the cancellation of night games.
Kathy, in turn, would take the bird into the recovery center run by the Kauai Humane Society, which now manages SOS using money donated by KIUC and, thanks to a recently negotiated plea agreement with the Department of Justice, Kauai County. That’s how it works, you see. The entities that kill birds are expected to fund efforts to prevent their extinction, like education, habitat restoration and SOS.
I hoped this little bird wouldn’t meet the same fate as the one she and her kids had rescued last Thursday and dutifully taken down to the aid station at Hanalei Liquor, one of numerous such sites set up all around the island. Caren didn’t like the idea of leaving the bird in that cold, wet little cage all night, so she’d called SOS (632-0610) and they had called Kathy, who drove down from her home in Wainiha to pick up the bird. She’d put the bird on a heating pad to warm it overnight, then taken it to the recovery room the next morning.
On Friday night, she sent Caren a photo — the bird is sporting a little “beard” of downy feathers — with this email:
I thought you might like this picture. (S)he had a temperature of 99 degrees last night (a good temp for a bird is 104 degrees), but it was 102.2 today. (S)he is very emaciated, and we did give her three rounds of electrolyte solution today. Dehydration is the biggest hurdle in stabilizing them. I am guessing it took off because it was so hungry and made it as far as your place. I understand that their parents leave them unattended for the last ten days. Hell of a way to begin life. They are such sweet beings. I wanted you to know how things had gone and send you a picture, since you hadn't taken one. I am sorry it isn't a better picture, but we were slammed. It seems like they are all fledging at once this year and the rehab room was full.
I asked Kathy if I could use the email and photo, and she said sure, but yesterday, she called me with an update: the little bird hadn’t made it. Apparently it weighed only about half what a chick should if it’s to survive at sea.
It’s hard to know why that particular bird was so emaciated. One of its parents might have been killed, and the fishing efforts of both are required to bring a chick to maturity. Or its parents might not have been able to find enough food; we don’t really know what’s going on out there at sea. Or it could just be the workings of nature. Life is tough for a seabird, and mortality is high among chicks under even the best circumstances.
Thomas Ka`iukapu, the state wildlife biologist on Kauai, confirmed in an email that the number of seabirds collected by SOS is slightly down this year from last. But it’s likely not because angry football fans are turning their backs on downed birds.
We anticipated the decrease in fallout this year, a part of it has to do with this year's El Nino event. There are scientific information that show that some species of seabirds do not breed or not return to their nesting grounds if conditions are not right. More research is needed to fully understand this phenomenon.
Other factors that have reduced the fallout numbers are less lighting on Kauai during the SOS season. There have been voluntary compliance from the Kauai community to turn off unnecessary lights during the SOS season. The people of Kauai have played an instrumental role in this endeavor to support the Save Our Shearwater program. We continue to work with local businesses, County and State agencies through the Kauai Seabird Habitat Conservation Planning office. As you know, the County of Kauai decided not to run the KIF night football games this year. This has, in my opinion helped reduce some of the seabird fallout this season.
I understand the disappointment over the cancelled night games. One of my friends was telling me about the impact. His wife missed many of their son’s games because she has to work on Saturdays, and a shortage of referees has wreaked havoc with scheduling games for the other football teams. As a result, some of the younger kids — we’re talking 8 and 9 years old — are waking up at 5 am. on Sundays so they can get to the field for a 6 a.m. weigh-in and 7 a.m. game. The Saturday high school games draw smaller crowds than Friday Night Lights, and this has meant less revenue for the KIF and the clubs that man the food booths, and so less money to support school sports.
He believes that birds and people can co-exist, but he’s frustrated that things reached the point of canceling the football games. He should be. As I found in doing my research, specific measures to prevent the decline of the `A`o were identified and clearly spelled out 15 years ago.
While some entities, like the Hyatt, responded by installing seabird-friendly lighting, others, like the county and some private businesses, directed their money and effort into other things. And that continued until this year, when the feds, and Earthjustice, stepped in and held their feet to the fire. The St. Regis — the largest single source of light-attraction bird deaths on Kauai — paid up and agreed to fix its lights. So did the county. KIUC is still fighting its federal criminal charges, and trial is set for Dec. 7.
And in the way of human beings, some people donned “buck the firds” T-shirts and others put `A’o chicks on heating pads.
"It keeps me from feeling totally helpless and hopeless about the situation," Kathy told me yesterday. "You just do what you can do."